Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU CT.034

2028 BC


2.36″ (6.0cm) high x 1.61″ (4.1cm) wide




Central Asia

Gallery Location



Sumerian Cuneiform is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. First appearing in the 4th millennium BC in what is now Iraq, it was dubbed cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) because of the distinctive wedge form of the letters, created by pressing a reed stylus into wet clay. Early Sumerian writings were essentially pictograms, which became simplified in the early and mid 3rd millennium BC to a series of strokes, along with a commensurate reduction in the number of discrete signs used (from c.1500 to 600). The script system had a very long life and was used by the Sumerians as well as numerous later groups – notably the Assyrians, Elamites, Akkadians and Hittites – for around three thousand years. Certain signs and phonetic standards live on in modern languages of the Middle and Far East, but the writing system is essentially extinct. It was therefore cause for great excitement when the ‘code’ of ancient cuneiform was cracked by a group of English, French and German Assyriologists and philologists in the mid 19th century AD. This opened up a vital source of information about these ancient groups that could not have been obtained in any other way.
Cuneiform was used on monuments dedicated to heroic – and usually royal – individuals, but perhaps its most important function was that of record keeping. The palace-based society at Ur and other large urban centres was accompanied by a remarkably complex and multifaceted bureaucracy, which was run by professional administrators and a priestly class, all of whom were answerable to central court control. Most of what we know about the way the culture was run and administered comes from cuneiform tablets, which record the everyday running of the temple and palace complexes in minute detail, as in the present case. The Barakat Gallery has secured the services of Professor Lambert (University of Birmingham), a renowned expert in the decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

This tablet consists of 19 lines of Sumerian cuneiform. This is a complete tablet in good condition, an administrative document from an official source listing rations of beer and bread issued to official messengers, with their functions stated. It is dated to the first year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2028 BC.


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mazzati, vizier, king’s messenger.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Duwa, king’s messenger when they went from Der to the king.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Susu’a, king’s messenger.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Utul-Mamma, king’s messenger. When they went to . . . . . . . . . . .

5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mashum, rider, king’s messenger. When they went to bring out . . . . .

A disbursement. Month: Aga. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king. On edge of tablet: Day 4.

Two of the purposes for the travel are not yet clear, though almost all the signs are legible. The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre, and clear for use with beer, but not to us with bread. It might refer to the flour for making the bread, rather than the finished product.

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